Larry Grayson in Lewisham
By: Sheldon K. Goodman
‘Larry Grayson back on stage!’ so proclaims the headline in ‘The Stage’ on Thursday 8th February 1979.
An entertainer only a few of my generation are aware of, Larry was a household name in the 1970s and 1980s. His arrival at the Lewisham Concert Hall (now the recently reopened Broadway Theatre for its ninetieth birthday) was part of a wider tour he was embarking upon as the seventies ended: Croydon, Tunbridge Wells and Aberdeen were all to welcome the fabulous and amiable host of the hit BBC television show, The Generation Game.
Famous for his catchphrases such as ‘shut that door!’ and ‘what a gay day!’, Larry served high camp and was one of the few visible representations of queerness on mainstream television, post legalisation of homosexuality in 1967. He’d also performed in the elsewhere in the borough – in the nightclub above the former Downham Tavern, on one occasion.
People would likely have suspected or known his true orientation, which he never publicly confirmed – although he sort of did towards the end of his life. Despite the inevitable homophobia he would have encountered, from audience members of TV executives however, one of the disarming things about him was his effortless skill in ingratiating himself with his warmth and humour to strangers. It was this that made him a cherished and loved entertainer.
In his 1979 visit to Lewisham, he was joined on stage by his Generation Game partner Isla St Clair with pianist Roger Burns and the Johnny Wiltshire Orchestra.
His notable flamboyance was both a validation for those who yearned for a visible role model in the media and an irritant to those within the LGBTQ+ community who felt his demeanor was NOT an suitable depiction of a gay man to (at times) an inhospitable society.
Gay role models at this time were very limited. Today we have the likes of Graham Norton and Alan Carr who can unapologetically be themselves, but only forty years ago, Larry, alongside John Inman, who played Mr. Humphries, senior menswear assistant of fictional department store ‘Grace Brothers’ in the hit sitcom ‘Are You Being Served?’, being the most prominent examples.
Larry had actually performed in Lewisham five years beforehand and it was a gig at the very same concert hall that members of the Lewisham branch for the Campaign for Homosexual Equality (CHE) arrived at to picket his show. The CHE were a membership organisation in the United Kingdom founded in 1969 to promote legal and social equality for lesbians, gay men and bisexuals in England and Wales.
In a recollection to LGBT History Month in 2011, former teacher and Schools OUT founder Paul Patrick recalls picketing the performance. The picketing was not against Larry personally, but because of how he came across through the media: “therefore distorting the reality of our lives”.
To his credit, Larry welcomed the group backstage after his show to discuss their concerns. The group needed unequivocal proof that he was in fact a gay man, which Larry confirmed. For what could have been an awkward and uncomfortable exchange of views, one thing unified them all in that dressing room – they were all gay men, in different strata of public acceptance, trying to be themselves. He asked what more he could do – he was an entertainer and household favourite: he could not be overtly ‘out’ without experiencing significant backlash. To a certain extent, he was restricted in altering or affecting the acceptance of homosexuality to a wider audience, lest it encounter significant backlash on his own career. Homophobia was (and is) rife to members of the community.
It was a point of contention for groups such as the CHE that gay men were being stereotyped as effeminate, limp-wristed characters, but they would serve as the springboard for latter representatives. Larry himself never likely saw himself as a figurehead for the community and his own grapples with his sexuality have been documented elsewhere, but undeniably there would have been people in the audience at the Lewisham concert Hall in both 1974 and 1979 who would have seen him as a shining light for representation. It is to his credit he met the valid concerns of the CHE and is part of a queer history in Lewisham I’d like to be more widely known and amplified.
And I implore LGBTQ+ residents of Lewisham who are under forty and have no idea who he was, to find him on Youtube. It’s old school, but his genuine playfulness with people on an utterly bizarre gameshow is a joy to watch.
Newspaper credit: The Stage, Thursday 8th February 1979, p.3, courtesy of The British Newspaper Archive